Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
July 31, 2015

MODERATOR: We’re going to go ahead and get started. First, thanks, everyone, for your flexibility. We apologize for the confusion on the number.

Joining us today for this call is [Senior State Department Official]. For this call [Senior State Department Official] can be referred to as a senior State Department official. [Senior State Department Official] is briefing today on background to preview the Secretary’s stops in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi. So a reminder, the call is on background. [Senior State Department Official] is pressed for time, so we’re going to go ahead, have [Senior State Department Official] open it, and then I will call on journalists by name. We’ll try and get through as many as we can. So thanks, everyone, for your flexibility.

[Senior State Department Official], if you can go ahead and get started.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. Thank you very much. Hello, everybody. The Secretary will be in Singapore on Tuesday, August the 4th. He’ll meet – have official meetings with the foreign minister, with the prime minister. He’s planning to give a speech. I’ll come back to that. On Wednesday and Thursday, August 5th and 6th, he’ll be in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Malaysians are hosting the package of regional meetings this year. So Secretary Kerry will participate in the multilateral meetings and also have meetings with his hosts, the foreign minister and the prime minister.

And then on August the 7th, Friday, he’ll be in Hanoi, Vietnam. He’ll have meetings with – official meetings with President Sang; with the General Secretary Trong, who was visiting – who visited the United States just two weeks ago; and of course with the Secretary’s counterpart, the foreign minister, Deputy Prime Minister Minh; and he’ll have other meetings, I’m sure.

So beginning with Singapore, the U.S. and Singapore have a very close partnership on a range of issues, including security, including trade, and we also put our heads together to discuss regional issues. In many respects Singapore is sort of the brain trust of Southeast Asia. The Secretary is looking forward, also, to being able to consult in Singapore on the upcoming ASEAN meetings. The visit also allows the Secretary to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Singaporean independence, to offer his personal condolences in person to the prime minister on the passing of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder and a great visionary.

The Secretary will give a speech in which he will expand on the economic pillar of the rebalance and, of course, this will be particular salient in the aftermath of the meeting among TPP ministers that is currently underway in Maui.

From Singapore, Secretary Kerry will go to Kuala Lumpur, as I mentioned. There are two sets of meetings. First, the ASEAN-based regional multilateral meetings, the four principal forums are the U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting; the ASEAN Regional Forum or the ARF, which includes a much larger group, 20-some-odd countries; the East Asia Summit ministerial, which is the 10 ASEAN countries plus eight major neighbors; and the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is the United States plus the five mainland Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River. And of course, the Secretary will have a range of bilateral meetings.

On the bilateral side, he will meet with, as I mentioned, the prime minister and the foreign minister of Malaysia, who are the chair of ASEAN this year, to discuss not only the upcoming meetings but to talk about developments in the region, to talk about TPP and TPP implementation. They’ll talk about trafficking and the need for further progress by Malaysia; talk about violent extremism; and as always, to share our concerns about things such as the restrictions placed on the press, about the treatment of opposition leaders, et cetera.

In the multilateral meeting context, the Secretary will, of course, address both the key aspects of our global environmental agenda – everything from climate change to illegal fishing to environmental standards, et cetera – and he will also, of course, address the very important regional and global security challenges such as proliferation, such as Iran and the DPRK. And of course, at the center of the discussions this year will be the South China Sea, and I fully expect there will be a thorough airing of the views of the participating countries, to include all the claimants – China and the Southeast Asia claimants, any other relevant interested parties.

These meetings reflect the heavy investment that Secretary Kerry personally and the Obama Administration more broadly has made in promoting and developing regional architecture, effective institutions, and working towards a stable, rules-based region.

On Friday, in Vietnam, where Secretary Kerry has a very special personal connection, the Secretary will meet to discuss everything from health and education to climate change, regional security, human rights. First and foremost, it’s an opportunity to mark the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. This is a chance to not only reflect on what we’ve achieved since normalization, but also to help set the course moving forward. We hope to strengthen cooperation on bilateral and regional issues, implementation of the TPP agreement and handling the issue of South China Sea, and of course, as always, our push for positive steps by Vietnam on human rights, on labor and so on, will be very much on the agenda.

The Secretary will speak publicly, I’m sure, on the significance of this 20th anniversary, and I hope talk a bit about the progress that is being made in establishing the Fulbright University in Vietnam, which is an important step forward – both for Vietnam and for the relationship. This will be the first independent university to operate in Vietnam.

Why don’t I stop there and open it up to questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much, sir. First we’ll go to Matt Lee with the AP. Matt?

QUESTION: In fact, I don’t have any questions. Sorry.

MODERATOR: That’s great, thank you so much, Matt.

QUESTION: Oh, actually wait, I do have one. (Laughter.) That is, what is the deal with this? Is it – this isn’t embargoed or is it?

MODERATOR: No, it is not embargoed but it is on background.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. Next, we’ll go to Michael Gordon with The New York Times.

QUESTION: Hi. I’ll make up for Matt by asking a question and a half. The – [Senior State Department Official], you mentioned that in the context of previewing the ASEAN meeting, that the subject matter would include not only the DPRK but Iran. Could you please explain in what context Iran comes up in a forum like that? Is it about sanctions relief or the procedures for going forward after the agreement?

And lastly, in Hanoi, there was a partial lifting of the arms embargo last year to include – or I mean the Vietnamese coast guard. Can you please tell us how that’s going in, what that’s resulted in so far, and whether there’s any thought being given to expanding the lifting of the arms embargo, to include other sorts of military support? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure, Michael. On the issue of Iran, the ministers have in the past discussed Iran, mostly in terms of the support expressed for U.S. efforts to find a peaceful formula to verifiably end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and to reduce the risk of proliferation. I would expect that we will hear expressions of strong support from other participants and perhaps questions to Secretary Kerry and the other P5+1 ministers present as to prospects, but not an in-depth discussion of the issues.

With respect to Vietnam, the partial lifting of the lethal weapons ban as applies to the U.S. ability to facilitate the coast guard enhancements that Vietnam is undertaking is the limit thus far to our efforts along those lines. There are no prospects for altering policy absent continued significant progress in relevant tracks, including on human rights. However, we are looking for ways to assist the littoral, the coastal countries in Southeast Asia including Vietnam, in bolstering their own legitimate maritime law enforcement capabilities and their maritime domain awareness capabilities. This helps them to deal with natural disasters. It also helps them to ensure that their territorial waters are secure and safe.


MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Next we’ll go to The Washington Post, Carol Morello. Carol?

Okay, moving on. Next we go to Reuters with David Brunnstrom.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. I just wondered, [Senior State Department Official], if you could tell us whether you have any expectation that we can expect some sort of unified or more unified position from ASEAN regarding the code of conduct, any progress on that, and whether or not in the absence of that you’re concerned that there’s any – that increasingly the South China Sea dispute is becoming one which really sort of pits China against the United States, especially in light of the Chinese comments the other day.

And I’ve got one separate question on trafficking, on the trafficking issue. Do you expect that to come up at any shape or form during the meetings in Malaysia? And on Thailand, what does Thailand specifically have to do to get upgraded in the way that Malaysia did?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, starting on the South China Sea, I know that there has been a recent senior officials meeting between China and the ASEAN counterparts in the run-up to the ministerial that in part focused on the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct and the negotiations leading towards a code of conduct. And I expect that we would get an update and a briefing on the state of those discussions when we are in KL. I know also that the Chinese themselves will be meeting with the 10 ASEAN countries just as we will, so we expect to learn more.

But it’s important, I think, to differentiate between the specific issue of the claims and among the claimants. Those are really questions of underlying sovereignty as regards the territorial and the maritime disputes and the broader question of China’s activities and China’s behavior. The ASEANs, like us, are concerned about the scale, the scope, the pace, and the implications of China’s reclamation work, its construction and its steps to militarize the outposts they’ve been building on these features in the South China Sea. And I would add that in the context of the East Asia Summit, other countries as well beyond ASEAN and the United States very much share these concerns.

The meetings themselves offer an opportunity for not only ASEAN as a group but all of the concerned countries to express directly to the Chinese what we each see, what we each seek to avoid, and what we each hope to see in terms of a reduction of tensions and the exercise of greater restraint. Now, we have been clear in making the point that the burden of restraint rests on all shoulders, that all of the claimants should act in accordance with international law and should do nothing that would exacerbate the tensions in this sensitive area. That’s, frankly, the commitment that the claimants, including China, made with the other ASEAN members in 2002 as part of their declaration of conduct.

There’s a broad consensus on the need to tap the brakes, so to speak, when it comes to exploitation or reclamation of the land features in the South China Sea. This is a forum where the Chinese will hear for themselves what their neighbors and their foreign partners think about both their activities and about their actions. This is an opportunity for the Chinese to gauge the reactions to what they’re doing.

With respect to trafficking, let me say that on a bilateral basis, I would expect the Secretary to make a push for a redoubling of efforts on the part of the Malaysians to expand prosecutions and to meet the standards that are set out in our legislation and that we expect all countries to try to live up to with regard to combating human trafficking. This is part of an ongoing dialogue. There has been, as the experts have judged it, progress in the past rating period in Malaysia sufficient to warrant an adjustment in the status of Malaysia to what’s called Tier 2 Watch List. But it’s very important to recognize that Tier 2 Watch List is not a good grade, and there’s much, much more that we would like and we seek to help the Malaysians to do.

The other issue, however, is the issue of irregular migration and the trafficking of Rohingyas from Myanmar, Burma, as well as workers from Bangladesh who are often confined in intolerable conditions in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. This is much more than a Malaysia problem, and it’s one that the U.S. has raised regularly with the countries in the region.

With respect to Thailand, the Secretary is not going to Thailand. There’s no bilateral scheduled with the Thai foreign minister, but both here in Washington and through our embassy in Bangkok, we have a substantive and a constructive dialogue underway with the Thai as to what kind of progress we would like to see when it comes to human trafficking and ways in which we think we can help.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks. We have time for one more question with our senior State Department briefer. I’m going to go to AFP, Nicolas Revise.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. A very quick question about Malaysian domestic politics: I’d like to have your take on the corruption allegations which are targeting directly the Malaysian prime minister, and what kind of impact it could have on the talks between the Secretary and the prime minister. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. Well, look, first of all, Malaysia is the chair of ASEAN, so it’s a given that we, like others, are going to Kuala Lumpur regardless of what may be occurring in their domestic politics.

Second, we recognize that this is an extraordinarily delicate and complicated moment in those politics, but the Secretary of State of the United States is not going to get into the middle of – on internal political scandal or a legal investigation that’s occurring in a foreign country merely because he’s attending meetings there.

As I mentioned, in addition to engaging with the Malaysian foreign minister and prime minister as the chairs of ASEAN, we also have some very significant business to conduct with Malaysia. The Secretary, as I mentioned, is quite focused on trafficking and will want to discuss further progress that Malaysia can make on that subject as well as on the issue of the Rohingyas and irregular migration. Connected to that is the range of important regional issues where Malaysia is a significant player, and that includes, frankly, Myanmar not merely as it concerns the Muslim minority Rohingyas, but also in light of the fact that the Burmese elections are coming up in a few months, are an important milestone in the eyes of the United States as well as Burma’s neighbors.

The Malaysians are a target country of radical recruitment by ISIL and ISIL-related violent extremist groups, and our dialogue on counterterrorism, on countering violent extremism with the Malaysians is extraordinarily valuable and I’m sure will be a topic of discussion there.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Pam at VOA. Can I sneak in a quick one before you go?

MODERATOR: I actually think that our senior State Department official has a meeting, Pam. My apologies for this. So unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to do that right now, but thanks for that.

I do want to remind everyone this call was on background. Thank you very much to our senior State Department official for joining us, and safe travels, everyone.